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A bombing blamed on Boko Haram in the heart of Nigeria's capital raised fears on Thursday of a worsening Islamist insurgency, with the security forces struggling to prevent attacks in remote villages and near the seat of government.
Wednesday's blast, which killed at least 21 people, shook the crowded Emab Plaza in downtown Abuja during the afternoon rush as shoppers were buying groceries an hour ahead of the country's World Cup match against Argentina.
The explosions struck “a very prominent street and it sends a very loud message”, said Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher at the International Crisis Group. “The message is that everywhere in the city is vulnerable.”
Boko Haram's five-year uprising to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria has killed thousands but there were hopes earlier this year that the violence had been contained in the remote north-east, the group's stronghold.
An April 14 bombing at a bus station on the outskirts of the capital and copycat attack at the same spot on May 1 cast doubt on claims that the insurgents had been weakened.
“The security situation in the north-east is very grim and the return of bombings in Abuja really raises questions about how much progress has been against the insurgency,” said Obasi. “It is embarrassing for the government.”
Dozens of soldiers and police guarded the Emab Plaza on Thursday, with the main road running past the plaza closed off, traders denied access to their shops and the burnt out shells of cars littering the blast zone.
Shellshocked shopkeepers and witnesses swapped stories of near misses as they returned to the scene.
“I ran after a customer who was at that gate to give him his phone which he forgot in our shop,” said trader Suleiman Mohammed.
“I saw a large crowd of people there. The bomb exploded before I got back to the shop.”
Police and the country's National Information Centre said on Wednesday one suspect had been arrested after the explosion, while another was shot dead by troops as he tried to escape on a motorbike.
The blast, at the entrance to the mall, was powerful enough to blow out windows in buildings on the opposite side of the street, an AFP correspondent on the scene said.
The area, sandwiched between two other shopping centres and one of the busiest in central Abuja, was littered with body parts in the immediate aftermath and soaked in pools of congealed blood.
“I saw a woman who almost (went) mad yesterday looking for her husband. According to her, she left her husband parked in his car waiting at that gate while she stepped into the plaza to buy something,” Bisi Adeoye, another trader, told AFP.
“She had not bought anything when the incident happened. Nobody knows what happened to the man now.”
Fellow shopkeeper Osaretin Odafe spoke of seeing “many bodies dismembered”.
A security officer for a foreign company who asked to remain anonymous said his firm is advising employees in Abuja to stay home aside from going to work and “to avoid crowded places.”
Such advice underscores the broader security decline in Nigeria's capital, which had been spared Boko Haram violence for nearly two years prior to the April 14 bombing.
Checkpoints were set up across the city following an August 2011 bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja.
The Boko Haram conflict has received unprecedented global attention in recent weeks following the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, which sparked worldwide outrage.
For Ryan Cummings, a South Africa-based security analyst for Red 24, “discrediting and undermining the Nigerian government in terms of both domestic and international onlookers may very well be the motivation” for renewed attacks in Abuja.
Nigeria has since May of last year been waging an offensive in the northeast to crush the uprising, but the operation has been widely criticised as failing to stem the unrest, with more than 2 000 people killed already this year.
Obasi, of the Crisis Group, noted that a military bombardment of Boko Haram's northeastern bases would do little to limit bomb attacks in the capital.
“The terrorists can always find a place to hit... a soft target,” he said. - Sapa-AFP